Chapter 2 - The Barnato Brothers


Barnett (Barney) Isaacs (Barnato) and Henry (Harry) Isaacs (Barnato)


Barney Barnato

How are the two Barnato brothers related to me? Well my great, great, grandfather, Joel Joel who was Solly or Solomon Isaac's father, married Catherine Isaacs and her brothers were Harry and Barney.

Young Barnett Isaacs really owed his luck to his brother Henry, 2 years his elder and thus they are inexorably linked together and their stories run virtually parallel.

The brothers’ family at that time was very poor, as were most of the Jewish immigrants that came from Russia and Poland (like my maternal grandfathers’ side, the Hobinstocks). Their father Isaac Isaacs, sold second hand clothes from his shop in Petticoat lane, having taken over from his father. It was a hard life.

Henry was born in a Whitechapel slum in 1850 and Barnett two years later in 1851. They were both educated by Moses Angel at the Jews' Free School.

After leaving school Henry worked as a comedian and conjurer

Neither Henry nor Barnett saw many options open to them. Toiling in the sweatshops of the East End did not hold any attraction, nor did working in their nephew Solly’s Mile End pub, the King of Prussia or in his father’s second hand clothes shop off Petticoat Lane.

Both left school at 14 and Barnett drifted from job to job, working as a pub door bouncer and working up a stage act for the East End music halls.

Barney is reputed to have begged pass-outs from theatre-leavers at the Garrick Theatre in Leman Street, to sell them on to others for a halfpenny. For a while he became a prize-fighter and like his brother, did a music-hall turn.

This was where they changed their names. Henry became Harry and then Barnett became Barney. Barnett also changed his surname to Barnato, which as legend has it, was because Barnett always wanted to join Henry when he was on stage, calling out, "And Barnett, too!"

The oft-repeated phrase evolved, to the point that Barnett Isaacs changed his name to Barney Barnato and Harry followed suit.

So from now on I’ll call them Harry Barnato and Barney Barnato.

Times were hard and Harry not wanting to live the same life as his parents and their friends in the East End had read about South Africa and decided to try his luck as there was no future in staying and so in 1871 he left London’s east End and arrived in South Africa thinking of earning a living entertaining the miners. He didn’t find that too rewarding and so by chance, just as the great diamond rush was starting he became a “Kopje Walloper” or diamond dealer, buying diamonds from miners and reselling them to other dealers.

It changed the two brothers’ lives and those of their families.

The extraordinary adventure that followed really started in 1866 or 1867 on a farm near Hopetown in South Africa, when a young shepherd, Erasmus Jacobs, found a large white pebble on the banks of the Orange River. The pebble turned out to be a 21.25 carat diamond. It was fittingly called "Eureka." Four years later in 1871, at the moment when Harry arrived in South Africa; on the slopes of the Colesberg Kopje, an 83.5 carat diamond was discovered. This find was what lead to the greatest diamond rush in history.

Prospectors came by the thousands and the hill soon began to disappear, in its place a gigantic open-pit mine appeared, now known as the "Big Hole" of the Kimberley Diamond Mine.

At the end of 1872, Harry contacted his brother and telling him about the fabulous riches to be made, begged him to join him. Barney had a little money, enough to buy his steamship ticket to Capetown and have a few pounds left. Solly, his nephew, the publican, gave him four boxes of cigars as additional capital.

When Barney finally arrived in Kimberley in 1873, with a few clothes and a five pound note, he found his brother living in a tent on his claim, with his toes sticking out of his socks. Nephew Solly’s cigars turned out to be rotten. But the brothers were both streetwise and in their small way entrepreneurs. Soon Harry and Barney amassed a little capital by trading diamonds.

They bought diamonds cheaply from prospectors and sold them on for a profit. Then in 1876, when they had accumulated enough capital, they used the money to buy claims. They were often claims that diggers had given up on just a bit too soon. The diamonds had seemed to run out as the yellow soft rock tuned to a hard blue rock. And because of this blue rock barrier, the claims that Harry and Barney now bought, were thought to be worthless. Barney was certain that they were wrong.

Why, one may ask, did Barney Barnato succeed when many sold their claims cheaply or even abandoned them when the diamonds seemed to run out?

Barney Barnato was convinced that they were wrong and that the diamonds were still there. And meanwhile he and his brother acquired many more claims. Many scientists and geologists believed that the diamonds had floated down the Vaal River, where the first large diamonds had been discovered, just as gold had done.

Barney Barnato tended to believe that in fact they were digging in the funnel of a large volcano and the blue rock the miners were confronted with was just a thick barrier. He also believed that on the other side of this rock the diamonds would be greater in size due to the higher pressures further below. So he persevered nearly to the extent of ruination. Then, having dug through the blue rock, that seemed to have ended the diamond rush, diamonds were re-discovered and his belief paid off.

And so they grew rich. They formed the Barnato Diamond Mining Company (subsequently the Kimberley Central Mining Company). By this time they had contacted their nephews and told them to join them.



Solly and his brothers Jack (born Isaac) and Woolf, were taken under the wing of their uncle, Barney Barnato and they all made a fortune from the Barnato Diamond Mining Company.







My father, Sidney Barnett and my aunt Raie told me that their grandfather’s first cousin, Jack, who was born in the King of Prussia, Solly's Pub, went to join the Barnato Diamond Mining Company with Solly and Woolf but he was arrested in March 1884 for illicit diamond smuggling. He jumped bail and fled back to England.

Although he was a rich man and went on to be a very successful horse race owner he was not a “multi millionaire” like Solly was. That’s apparently why my side of the family never saw anything of their fortune. My Aunt Bessie, who died on my birthday, January 11th 1953, was the last close relation to receive a pension from the Joel trust.

Within ten years Barney and Harry Barnato had become millionaires.

One of their discoveries may have been the fabulous yellow Tiffany diamond. It weighed 287.42 carats (57.484 g) in the rough when discovered in 1877 or 1878 in either the 'the De Beers Mines' or 'the Kimberly Mines'. The finding of the Tiffany Yellow took place before accurate records of the discovery of large diamonds from South Africa were kept.

You might be interested to know that the largest rough gem-quality diamond in the world was found in the area in 1905. The rough stone was 3,106 carats, weighed over 1.3 pounds (621 grams). It was colourless and perfect. Named the "Cullinan Diamond", the rough uncut stone was sold to the Transvaal Government for 150,000 pounds and cut into eleven gemstones. The largest of the eleven was named the Cullinan l, the Great Star of Africa and weighed 530 carats. The second largest cut diamond to come from the Cullinan stone was called the Cullinan ll, the Lesser Star of Africa and it weighed 317.4 carats.

Cullinan I is now mounted in the head of the Sceptre with the Cross. The second gem from the Cullinan stone, Cullinan II, the Lesser Star of Africa, is the fourth largest polished diamond in the world. Both gems are in the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.

In 1880 Barnato Brothers and Company was established. They then floated the claims into this company and renamed it the “Barnato Diamond Mining Company. Several other companies soon appeared including Cecil Rhodes’ De Beers Diamond Mining Company.

Cecil Rhodes was at that time, also a fabulously wealthy man having been well financed by the Rothchilds and was as well a powerful voice in South African Politics. He of course was the founder of Rhodesia. Rhodes wanted control of Barnato’s Kimberley Mine to control the output and thus the price of the diamond trade.



A furious battle erupted to buy shares in the Barnatos’s company. The shares soared from £14 to £49 in just a few months. Rhodes outflanked Barney, finally declaring that he owned 60% of the shares in the brothers’ company and forced a merger with De Beers.

So in 1888, only 17 years since he had arrived in South Africa with a five pound note and some rotten cigars, Barney and Harry finally agreed to sell the rest of their shares to Rhodes.



Their interests were amalgamated into the De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited. Harry Barnato proudly displayed the famous cheque for £5,338,650 which he kept in a frame in his office.

Today’s value would make them billionaires and make them worth around £3 billion today. Now the diamond market was controlled by Rhodes’ company De Beers.

A century later De Beers is still in control of the world diamond business.

The two Barnato brothers and Rhodes had made themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams and both Barney and Rhodes went on to use their wealth and influence to gain political power.

Barnato then redoubled his fortune in the boom in South African gold mining shares of 1894-95 before losing most of it in the 1896 share collapse. He built, but never lived in, a vast house on the corner of Park Lane and Stanhope Gate in Mayfair, London, which was bought after his death by the banker Sir Edward Sassoon.

During the last months of 1896 and into the following year Barney was working without rest, however he was no longer the fit man he used to be and began to suffer from lack of sleep. He was also becoming depressed and was frightened of being left alone.

In April 1897 he became ill with a slight fever, nothing serious but his depression was becoming worse. Finally on doctors’ advice he quit work in Johannesburg and moved to Capetown.

Once there he took up his seat in the South African Parliament and debated the burning question of the subsidy being paid to the steamship companies for the postal service. He condemned in scathing terms the Monopoly of the shipping ring which was acting like a leech on South African industry. He threatened that if it continued he would establish a competing fleet of steamers.

Once again he fell ill. His nephew Solly said, “Three weeks before, when at Johannesburg, I received a telegram from Mrs. Barnato at Capetown to the effect that her husband was in a very bad state of mind. I at once went to Capetown, and found that my uncle was very queer, and had not been to bed for three nights."

"He improved sufficiently to come to England on the day that he had some weeks before arranged for, and I came with him solely to look after him."



With his depression getting worse, Solly came to Capetown where he decided to return to England with Barney, his wife and their three small children.

On the 2nd June 1897 they boarded the SS Scot, which was bound for Southampton and hopefully once back in England Barney could recover.



SS Scott



Once aboard Barney did improve. The sea air and the absence of work were doing some good. Nevertheless Solly and Barney’s wife kept a watchful eye on him and he was never left alone. Even at night a careful watch was kept on his cabin door. There would always be someone around in case his insomnia caused him to go for a walk on deck. He would not be alone.

June 13th had seen a gale blowing and although the following day it was fine and clear, the wind was still strong and the sea rough.

On that fateful June day the SS Scot sailed close to the island of Madeira and at lunch Barney appeared bright and well, even more than usual. He laughed and joked with his family and chatted to the other passengers. Then later that afternoon he started walking up and down the deck in his usual hurried pace. Solly suggested that they take a couple of deckchairs and rest a while but Barney continued to pace up and down. Finally he stopped walking and asked Solly the time. Solly pulled out his fob watch and said “it is thirteen minutes past three”. As Solly replaced his watch Barney suddenly ran to the rails and jumped overboard.

There was no warning. The fourth officer, W. Clifford was also having a siesta nearby, was immediately woken up by Solly’s cries.

In his evidence at the inquest, Solly said, “I had closed my watch, and was putting it back in my pocket, when my uncle jumped overboard. I cried out “Murder!” and tried to catch hold of him. I did touch the bottom of his trousers, but could not hold on.”  I have added extracts from the book "Ace of Diamonds" by Barney's famous grand-daughter, Diana Walker-Barnato, which eludes to far more than a suicide. The story of Diana and of course her father, Woolf, the Bently boy, is also worth reading.





Despite the fact that the SS Scot was steadily driving on at 17 knots and despite the rough seas, Clifford dived in without hesitation from the ship’s rail.

“Man overboard!” was screamed and lifebuoys were thrown. The SS Scott immediately turned about and a lifeboat was launched before most passengers realised anything was wrong. The lifeboat reached Clifford and he was pulled on board. He was unconscious from the brave effort trying to save his passenger.

Nearby was Barney’s body, floating face downwards.

The lifeboat returned to the SS Scott with Clifford and Barney but the doctor on the lifeboat could do nothing for Barney.

Clifford’s brave actions were not forgotten. Sir Henry de Villiers, Chief Justice of the Cape Colony, and the Premier, Sir Goixlon Sprigg, were also passengers on that sad journey. They made a short address of thanks and Clifford was presented with one hundred pounds.

Although it was, as all Jewish funerals are, a simple ceremony, the hearse and the immediate family were followed by hundreds of carriages filled with many prominent business men and some thousand people followed on foot or lined the route, wanting to show their respects.

Barney Barnato was finally laid to rest next to his father, Isaac Isaacs in the Jewish Cemetery at Willesden, not far from where my parents and my maternal grand parents lie.

Harry died 11 years later of heart failure, in November 1908. He was at home in London. He had been working in the office up to then. He left a wife and daughter.

His estate was estimated at £5 million pounds and he willed about £1 million pounds to her and at least £250,000 to charity.

Like at the funeral of his late brother hundreds of carriages followed the hearse from Hamilton Terrace in London to the Jewish cemetery in Willesden. His final resting place was fittingly next to his brother. They had shared so much together.





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